History and The FDR Wars
Tibor R. Machan
When I went to college I had my biggest problem with the discipline of
history. It may have started when I was a kid in Hungary and first ran up
against official ?scholars? who rewrote Hungary?s history?renamed the
streets in Budapest, rewrote all the textbooks, and reshuffled the
holidays, and even completely recast Western intellectual history. Also,
under Marxism there was room for just one account of the development of
philosophy, namely, what Karl Marx and his epigone wrote.
At first I thought that in a relatively free society historians could be
trusted a lot more than under Marxism. But I am not so sure about this
now. To begin with, the one major institution of American and much of
Western society that?s very similar to what it had been under communism is
education. Elementary schools, high schools, the majority of junior and
community colleges as well as of colleges and universities?these are all
arms of government. They obtain the funding by the extortionist means of
taxation; many of them conscript their students, and the textbooks used
are products of the political process, not of independent scholarship.
Now don?t get me wrong. Independent scholarship is difficult to come by
even under the most idea circumstances, namely, a totally free educational
system. Scholars would have axes to grind even if education were, like
journalism and religion, completely separated from government. But there
wouldn?t be a monopoly of governmental influences in education, whereas
now there is.
This monopoly clearly influences scholarship, including the reporting and
study of history. Books selected by scholars and teachers employed by
government schools have a tendency to suppress uncomfortable truths, so
the major publishers and the reviewers and boards working for them are
inclined to interpret the past in favor of the political ideology that
dominate in the schools.
A good case in point is the volumes of work appearing on Franklin D.
Roosevelt?s political economic leadership. The most recent of these,
Newsweek journalist Jonathan Alter?s Defining Moment: FDR?s Hundred Days
and the Triumph of Hope (Simon & Schuster, 2006), follows in the footsteps
of others, such as Cass Sunstein?s Second Bill of Rights: FDR?s Unfinished
Revolution and Why We Need it More than Ever (Basic Books, 2004), in
unabashedly tooting FDR?s horn. There isn?t even a pretense of
evenhandedness in these works?both are histories used to pitch a highly
partisan rendition of FDR?s political outlook and the measures he
implemented. Were this outright political advocacy it would be less
insidious because that would be honest. But being disguised as histories,
these works put a perverted reading of history in the underhanded service
of pushing on ideology.
A good case in point is the refrain that FDR?s ?rescued capitalism? and
saved us from its worst form, laissez-faire. As Alter made clear in a
recent interview, before FDR, critics of government intervention in the
economy and society would not have been intimidated. So, for example, with
an event such as hurricane Katrina, back before the time of FDR there
would have been many who would have noted that it isn?t the job of the
federal government to address hurricanes. As Alter gleefully announced,
this is no longer the case?which is why he called FDR?s era the ?defining
But why did it become widely palatable to have government become so
interventionist? (It clearly has little to do with its record of
successes, both before and after FDR!) Because most government employed
historians managed to sell the idea that FDR remedied the damage done by
laissez-faire economics. FDR is credited by these apologists with rescuing
the American economy after laissez-faire caused the Great Depression, bank
failures, and so forth.
Yet this is all false, as has been shown by numerous economists who have
bucked the statist trend of mainstream education and scholarship. However,
their works do not receive the support of major publishers that know on
which side their bread is buttered. James Powell?s FDR?s Folly: How
Roosevelt and his New Deal Prolonged the Depression (Crown Forum, 2003),
for example, was not reviewed in the prominent forums, such as The New
York Review of Books, The New York Times, The New Republic, The Atlantic,
and so forth?he was not widely interviewed on such programs as Charlie
Rose and Oprah.
Alter and Sunstein are only some of the great many who carry on a
political campaign under the cover of historical scholarship. But because
most of these folks are protected by government?s near complete monopoly
of education, the normal forces of competition aren?t at work in their
area of scholarship.
Can we hope to see any improvement? Not really, not so long as the
government?s monopoly on education remains basically unbroken.